Still no movie theatre for Saudi cinema buffs

 The news was greeted with enthusiasm by Saudi cinema buffs: the opening of the country's first new cinema in thirty years in Dammam, a town east of Riyadh.  


Façade of the so-called cinema.


The news was greeted with enthusiasm by Saudi cinema buffs: the opening of the country's first new cinema in thirty years in Dammam, a town east of Riyadh.


News that a commercial cinema had opened on November 16 to celebrate the feast day of Eid was even reported by the respected London-based Saudi daily “Al-Hayat”. According to the newspaper, the cinema would initially project only children’s films, but would soon open a larger screen for adults, at 25 riyals a showing (about 5 euros).


But this good news turned out to be a disappointment when the information was refuted a week later. What journalists had taken to be a commercial cinema was nothing but a projection auditorium in “five dimensions” for the “intellectual development of children". So far the cinema has only shown animation films specially created for this type of 5D screen (in 3D and with moving, special effects chairs). Journalists at “Al-Hayat” were presumably led astray by the director of the complex, who used the term "cinema" to describe the project.


The announcement prompted a wave of enthusiasm in Saudi Arabia, promting dozens of families to show up at the so- called cinema. A religious committee was even dispatched to the scene to verify that it was not a cinema, a form of entertainment that is banned in the country.


Saudi Arabia has been devoid of public cinemas since the end of the 1970s when the religious authorities designated it an immoral and subversive art form. There are a only few private projection studios for designated purposes. The first Saudi full-length film, ”Dhalil Assamt” (“The Shadows of Silence”), was only produced in 2006. Other cinematographic works are extremely rare. The Saudi film competition was interrupted in its first year, 2008, even though it had been launched by the Minister for Culture and Information, Iyad Madany. The film festival of Jeddah, launched in 2006, was also banned in July 2009.

"Cinema" façade. Photo taken on the mobile phone of our Observer.


This article was written in collaboration with Sarra Grira, journalist at France 24.

"I do not doubt that a real cinema screen will appear sometime in the next year or so"

Mohammed Alsaeedi is a former Saudi journalist. He lives close to Dammam, a town in the east of the country.


The news about the cinema opening came as a surprise to us, particularly as the owner of the complex was known to be part of quite a radical religious group ('Jama’at Attakfir'). We actually believed that it was an act of the authorities, a symbolic gesture on behalf of the monarchy who have been launching modernization initiatives for some time.


We were not surprised that this experiment was attempted in Dammam rather than in Riyadh, the capital, or in Jeddah. In fact, the eastern region (Asharqiya) is known for its greater openness by comparison to other parts of the country. That is mainly due to geographic reasons: we are only 30 minutes away from Bahrain and 45 minutes from Dubai. The people in my region often spend their weekends in these countries in which going to the cinema is a normal activity. In fact, when news of the opening first appeared, it was mainly people from other towns who descended, particularly from Riyadh.


Several local journalists have taken up this story and collected citizens’ reactions. Everyone had been waiting with baited breath. Unfortunately, the news was unfounded and the managers have since stated that the journalists simply misunderstood the press release. Personally, I don't think that it was a misunderstanding. I think that it was a way for the authorities to gauge how people would react to such an announcement. I do not doubt that there will be a real cinema within the next year or so."